Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Yesterday in The Miami Herald

Since my reviews get picked up by other papers through syndication within days of their original publication, I may start running 'em here the day after.

Here's yesterday's book, also a selection for my monthly book club. (If you want to join the club, the info is here. The club members' severely edited reviews are here.)

Feeling squeezed? Here are some reasons
Jared Bernstein explains why government policies are designed to benefit the haves over the have-nots.


published 6/30/08 in The Miami Herald

Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries). Jared Bernstein. Berrett-Koehler. 225 pages.

Economics may be the dismal science, but the extent of its politicization makes it even more dismal. Business is what moves the world, and the vitality of commercial enterprise ensures our well-being, but Americans like to think that we're different. We value the individual, extol hard work and believe that the middle class runs the show. But tax cuts are given to offset minimum-wage increases, and arms manufacturing programs are maintained for economic and political reasons contrary to actual defense exigencies or strategic requirements. And healthcare? Why is it the fastest growing portion of personal — and the federal government's — budgets?

Economist Jared Bernstein takes a clear-eyed look at the politics that propels the economic policies that directly affect our lives and livelihoods. If you suspected the deck was stacked against the middle class and that government policies in general seem to favor the monied few over the working masses, Bernstein reinforces this notion.

But this is not a partisan screed nor socialist manifesto. In fact, Bernstein is pretty fair-minded, and though he may be mortified by the hypocrisy and purposeful obfuscation, he keeps his outrage on a slow simmer and applies his sense of humor to most every situation and observation. But it's not a yuk-fest that Bernstein presides over; rather, he attempts to break down the ways we're all being crunched and why, but in a lighthearted and nonthreatening way.

What motivated him to publish this book? He writes: "Economics has been hijacked by the rich and powerful, and it has been forged into a tool that is being used against the rest of us. Far too often, economists justify things many of us know to be wrong while claiming the things we believe are critically important can't be done — I'm tired of being stuck in the studio engaging in rants with Darth Vaders with Ph.Ds. Wouldn't it be more useful to have an open-ended, rant-free dialogue with real, everyday people about their economic questions?"

Indeed, Bernstein manages to present both sides of each issue without contorting reality, but he's also quick to point out the silliness — or avarice — involved in the majority of policy decisions. In many ways, the present American administration makes it easy for the author, as its motivations and tactics are patently transparent. But it doesn't have an exclusive franchise on duplicity and venality, and Bernstein is quick to point out how a confluence of interests within and beyond Washington conspire to profit from the ignorance of the public and the ambiguity of our national goals.

In addition to his criticism, Bernstein provides some bright ideas for reducing the rat's nest created by special interests, ideologues and crooks. That's the best part of this book, but it's also the most challenging, as it requires education, organization and action. Though hardly as exciting as American Idol, it's probably more important and relevant to our lives and our happiness. Regardless, for a book on economics, Bernstein's tome is surprisingly un-dismal, despite the dire shape we're in.

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